Although there are some who refuse to believe in fossil evidence, we do have pieces and fragments of very old creatures. The society of "young Earth" believers would say it is a hoax because the Bible doesn't account for all that time. I suppose if you needed to believe the Bible literally you could remind yourself that no one knows how long Adam and Eve were living the "good life" in the Garden of Eden. Perhaps the dinosaurs came and went while they were still in paradise? I don't personally believe that dinosaurs and humans lived at the same time - but the idea of Neanderthals and humans co-existing seems possible.

Some years ago a fiction novel called "The Clan of the Cave Bear" was very popular, taking place in a distant past of stone age people. The main character was beautiful and blonde, and misunderstood by the brunette and swarthy people who took her in. I couldn't finish the book because it seemed kind of racist. . . perhaps the author was trying to suggest a mixture of Neanderthals and a human? It would have made the story more palatable. National Geographic magazine published last year, their mock up of what a young Neanderthal woman would look like. She was short, stocky, and not that swarthy. She might have been blonde.

Neanderthals have perplexed and intrigued science ever since the first fossil discovery in a cave in what is now Germany, in 1856. Who were they? Where did they go?

Over the one hundred and fifty years, the picture of them has become less nebulous. From their remains, it is now known that Neanderthals were bigger and stronger than Homo Sapiens i.e. "anatomically modern humans." They had larger skulls with a distinctive super orbital ridge. They were perhaps the descendants of a lineage that separated from Homo Sapiens around 400,000 years ago, originating on the continent of Africa, and gradually spreading across Europe and central Asia. The last of the Neanderthals lived in what is now Spain and Portugal, dying out sometime between 37,000 and 28,000 years ago.

(Homo Sapiens, by contrast, evolved in Africa, arriving at recognizably modern skeletons between 130,000 and 200,000 years ago. Those people coexisted with Neanderthals until the Neanderthals disappeared.)

What else is now known about Neanderthals? They may live among us and do car insurance commercials. They found their fifteen minutes of fame with a short lived situation comedy. They may have known about jewelry, either ritualistic or merely decorative. They certainly created and used tools such as axes and spears. They hunted, probably in groups. Perhaps they tattooed their bodies.

Recently, with much fanfare, scientists have discovered their full genome sequence of Neanderthals. The idea is that if one lines up for comparison, the sequences of humans, Neanderthals and chimpanzees, one can start to trace which genetic changes occurred when. The new data suggests that by far the bulk of the genetic evolution happened in the millions of years before humans and Neanderthals separated! The meager known differences between Homo Sapiens and Neanderthals occur in a tender hodgepodge of genes. The discovery and analysis is an amazing accomplishment. Yes, it's preliminary and may contain some errors. But just imagine for a stunning moment: the DNA was extracted from bones that are tens of thousands of years old. Whereas the DNA in living cells is conveniently present in intact long strings, in ancient specimens it's been broken into tiny fragments, if it's preserved at all. Think of the animals, plants and microscopic organisms that may have lived in the bones over all the years the bones have lain in the Earth. The potential and reality of contamination is huge. One wonders with the difficulty of reading DNA for a court case, with evidence over 20 years old, how any one could make head nor tail of DNA as old as a Neanderthal.

And the results are tantalizing. Neanderthals it seems are distinct from humans, but no more so than coyotes and foxes from the domestic dog. If they had a language, could the humans at the time speak it? Did they hunt humans? There is evidence of them being cannibals, sometimes feasting on brains. Which begs the question, did they die off due to mad "cow" disease?

The human version of mad cow has been found in notoriously high proportion in populations where cannibalism exists. Dr. Oliver Saks, of "The man who mistook his wife for a hat" fame, wrote a short piece for the New Yorker magazine I read years ago which speculated that eating its own, is neither natural nor healthy for any mammal. Less than five years after that it was made public that cow feed was routinely peppered with cow bone meal, for calcium. Cows just aren't meant to eat cows. People aren't meant to eat people. Is it possible the Neanderthals weren't meant to eat each other?

If they didn't die off due to mad Neanderthal disease, then where did they go? Did they interbreed with humans? There are people who have a more pronounced ridge over their eyebrows walking around today. Further DNA testing would no doubt solve that mystery. My interbreeding is rare in the wild. You don't see a lion / tiger mix except in zoos, where you do see them. I have also discovered a website devoted to "zedonks" a cross between zebras and donkeys. The sad truth is most mixed animals are sterile. The family tree would end.

There's no natural reason for a horse and donkey to get together and create a mule, but those creatures can't talk. It's interesting to wonder if humans and Neanderthals were aware of each other's cultures and made efforts to get along. They would be like the warring aliens of Star Trek, sharing the planet until the Humans won out. Perhaps the humans hunted down the Neanderthals to extinction. It wouldn't take much. If people were convinced that the ivory of their teeth had aphrodisiac powers, the Neanderthals might well have gone the way of wild elephants and snow leopards.